The screening of Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt was followed by a panel debate.

Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Ada Ushpiz

The Advance of Totalitarianism

[The film can be seen by subscribers here.]

What was he thinking, Israel ambassador Raphael Schutz as he, along with his two body guards, attended the screening of the documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt followed by a panel debate?

The ambassador lent his support to the February event at the Kunstnernes Hus (House of Artists) in Oslo. We discussed totalitarianism, something Hannah Arendt especially wrote about in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism (1951) – which is currently doing very well on Amazon. Peace scientist Henrik Syse looked at Arendt’s notion about public space with enough physical and mental capaciousness to allow free speech and discussion of all types of questions.

The totalitarian grows where there is no longer a divide between truth and lies.

As moderator, I could not help myself; I referred to Schutz who was seated in the audience and represents Israel who, by many, is viewed as a modern form of a totalitarian state – with its evident exclusion of Palestinian opinion. In Israel, you may for instance be punished if you encourage academic or cultural boycott because of Israel’s occupation. Israeli Rina Riosh, who researched the film, explains that Breaking the Silence – an organisation of former Israeli soldiers-turned-occupation resistors – was recently expelled from their large gathering at Tel Avis’s artistic venue Barbur. The city’s mayor was quickly instructed by the Israeli Department of Culture that the city’s venues were not to be used for political events. Adding to this, Henrik Syse reminds us, the audience, – and a very tolerant one at that – that asking questions is one of our more human qualities.

The totalitarian grows where there is no longer a divide between truth and lies. As exemplified by US President Trump’s power exercises and ‘alternative facts’. The totalitarian is also present where minorities are suppressed and others excluded, for instance the way president of the world’s number one immigration nation saw fit to deny Muslims entry. However, totalitarian advancement is evident where large swathes of people no longer really think – and only allow the ‘logical, functional and necessary’, in the words of film director Ada Ushpiz. Her film is based on the banality of evil, the way German Adolf Eichmann was the civil servant shipping the Jews straight to the extermination camps.  Ushpiz describes ‘introvert self-feeding dream worlds where people find enjoyment on different levels … in pulverised post-modern societies.’ People are here deprived of their inner morals and become accomplices in all evil as legitimised by the country’s majority. She refers to Arendt and reminds that the private and public spheres are steeped in clichés. Instead, one gets comfortable in the physical, emotional and intellectual amenities.’ To think, according to Arendt is to have a real dialogue with oneself, whereby both experiences, empathy with others and one’s own lonely heart are included – and ethical thinking space unheard of for anyone akin to Hitler or Trump.

Arendt’s book on totalitarianism was published in 1952, just before she became a US citizen. Prior to this, she was a paperless refugee for 17 years, according to Arendt researcher Helgard Mahrdt. In relation to the current State- and paperless refugees, the Norwegian authorities are not exactly ideal. This brutality was recently criticised in the newspaper Class Fight (Klassekampen), by psychologist Karl Eldar Evang who described the health centre where he and other volunteers offer help to those sans papers. These ‘invisibles’ as he terms them, originate from Afghanistan, Palestine, Eritrea, Syria, Iran and Iraq: ‘Everyone I encounter, live with a strong experience of rejection. Of not being allowed into the community….’

Arendt seeks the right of the stateless ‘to have rights’. But, not least this need to participate in a community and projects, instead of winding up homeless, rootless or in a refugee camp. As philosopher Judith Butler explains in the film, the Jewish Arendt was also forced to flee, first Germany then France, before a lengthy spell as paperless in the USA. Following her statements about the banalities of evil as uttered during the Israeli Eichman court case, she was rejected by her own Jewish community who superficially labelled her ‘self-hating Jew’ and ‘anti-Semitist’. Arendt herself never fell for the clichés’ comfortable community. Looking at today’s growing tide of nationalism, it is interesting to note how she within totalitarianism put forward Alexis de Tocqueville’s theory about federations and associations. Arendt was the cosmopolitan who defended the international community – which modern anarchist refer to as ‘affinity groups’ or a communal interest community. Wolfgang Heuer of Berlin’s Freie Universität (who also behind the publication emphasised in Oslo how anarchy seeks to protect minorities.

Finally, allow me to recommend Hannah Arendt: Die Melancholische Denkerin der Moderne (The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, 2003) by Turkish-American, Sephardic Jew Seyla Benhabib. She writes: ‘Arendt’s words have proven prophetic: Over the next half a century, the refugee issue will become a global problem … a vicious circle of the stateless, vulnerable minorities and the expelled.’ I am sure Ambassador Schutz can hear me.


The film can be seen by subscribers here.

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